How One Teacher's Angry Blog Sparked a Viral Classroom Debate

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Matt Rourke / AP

Pennsylvania high school teacher Natalie Munroe has been suspended from her job over angry blog posts about her students

When high school English teacher Natalie Munroe had a bad day at school, she didn't just vent to her husband: she took it to her blog. Titled "Where are we going, and why are we in this handbasket?" and all but unknown to the world until earlier this month, Munroe's website served as a chronicle of her "utterly loathsome" students. In one post, she advises students to go get jobs with the trash company. In another, she calls them "rude, disengaged, lazy whiners." In yet another she doesn't mince words, proclaiming, "There's no other way to say this: I hate your kid." Now Munroe, who has been temporarily suspended from her position, finds herself in the middle of a swirling online debate — not over what she did, but over what she said about the sometimes harsh realities of the 21st century classroom.

While it's undoubtedly naive to believe in 2011 that a blog will remain anonymous — especially considering Munroe published the online musings using her first name, the initial of her last name and a photo of herself — her attorney, Steve Rovner, says legally she did nothing wrong to warrant suspension. Rovner says his client's school district does not have a policy in place that dictates what teachers can and cannot do online and Munroe did not name the school, nor her students, in her blog posts. Still, while Munroe maintains what she wrote was meant only to serve as amusement for herself, her husband and seven of her friends who read the site, in publishing the rants to a blog — rather than, say, via a mass e-mail to friends and family — she opened herself up to the chance that anyone outside her circle could find the posts.

Someone did. Though she never could have predicted the fallout from what she thought were private rants, the full ramifications hit home on Feb. 9 when she was suspended with pay from her job at Central Bucks East High School in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Not long after, her face was plastered on the evening news. "I'm like anyone else in the world — when we encounter frustrations we come home, tell our family and friends about it," Munroe told TIME. "I wasn't fixating on these things, I wrote them down and moved on."

A few days after her suspension, Munroe again logged onto her blog to write a different kind of post, titled "Bloggate- Day 1: The Scandal Begins." (Though she removed all the old posts, this newer post is still available online.) In the post she laments her comments being taken out of context and says the positive things she said about her students in some posts were overlooked. But rather than wishing her plight would quickly fade from the spotlight, Munroe instead welcomed the discussion she thought her comments could spark. "There are serious problems with our education system today," she wrote. "If this 'scandal' opens the door for that conversation, so be it."

By the following week Munroe's story had caught the eye of producers at ABC's Good Morning America. Her appearance on the popular morning show on Wednesday quickly made her the subject of online postings on blogs and across Facebook. One Facebook group, labeled "I support Natalie Munroe," has garnered nearly 3,000 "likes," while an opposing group, called "Throw the Book at Natalie Munroe," has more than 500 "likes."

It's within these Facebook groups that the court of public opinion has weighed in on Munroe's situation. Her supporters — many of them teachers — tout the age-old mantra "Kids these days," and cheer Munroe for having the guts to publicly write things about today's "disrespectful" youth that most of them only dare mutter under their breath. One such commenter was Brian Nash, a fifth-grade teacher in West Point, Utah, who has been teaching for nine years. While Nash calls teaching "the absolute greatest job in the world," he says any teacher can relate to having a few students that drive them crazy. "I don't think there is anything wrong with calling kids out — I think they need it," he tells TIME. "There's this mentality that we can't say anything to kids, that we have to baby them, but I'm one of those tough-love kind of people."

But other teachers, like Amy Sterling Casil, an English teacher at a California community college, says that while she cuts K-12 teachers some slack for having to face things she doesn't have to in a college environment, Munroe's remarks were "immature and unprofessional." "It's not like I don't think things like this," she tells TIME. "I have a student right now that I could react that way about, but instead I'm working with that student to get him interested in the class rather than going on the Internet and venting."

It seems the contention surrounding Munroe's comments boils down to a fundamental question: Just how much are teachers to blame for the problems plaguing the current education system? Some see in Munroe's comments a systematic rundown of the dire challenges facing America's overburdened teachers. Others see just the kind of attitude problem that can lead students astray. For her part, Munroe thinks teachers get a bad rap. "I don't think people realize how much work goes into being a teacher," Munroe says. "The perception is that everything is the teachers' fault, but teachers can only work within the system that is in place."

While Munroe's suspension is indefinite — in place until the school district decides whether to take her back or terminate her employment — her lawyer says he will likely be filing a lawsuit in the near future. "It's a First Amendment issue," Rovner says. "And it's an unresolved area of the law." And much like the impending legal battle, it's also uncertain as to when the online furor will die down. With an increasing number of national and now international publications picking up her story, it seems Munroe was right when she said the conversation had just begun.